Sunday, April 17, 2005

A legal analysis of 'Party Political Films'

Singapore Legal Mumbo Jumbo Demystified
Providing a legal perspective to bloggers' commentary on the social, economic & political issues of Singapore.

Party Political Films
Over at Singabloodypore, Steven McDermott wrote about the Singapore Rebel, a movie about Chee Soon Juan, a well-known opposition figure in Singapore.

Martyn See, the maker of Singapore Rebel, has withdrawn the movie from Singapore's annual film festival, after the government warned him its political content could land him in jail. This is because the censorship board apparently viewed the film as a "party political film".

I hereby demystify the legal mumbo jumbo:-

In 1998, the Films Act was amended to introduce the concept of "party political films". (Prior to that, the only other category of films that the Films Act specifically referred to by subject-matter was "obscene films". But that's another story). Essentially, no one is allowed to import, make, reproduce or exhibit any party political film. That means any film:

1. which is an advertisement made by or for any political party in Singapore, or any organisation whose focus is mainly on Singapore's politics; or

2. which is made by any person and which is directed towards any political end in Singapore.

In turn, the phrase "directed towards any political end in Singapore" is further defined as follows:

For the purposes of this Act, a film is directed towards a political end in Singapore if the film —

(a) contains wholly or partly any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore; or

(b) contains wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter, including but not limited to any of the following:

(i) an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(ii) a candidate or group of candidates in an election;

(iii) an issue submitted or otherwise before electors in an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(iv) the Government or a previous Government or the opposition to the Government or previous Government;

(v) a Member of Parliament;

(vi) a current policy of the Government or an issue of public controversy in Singapore; or

(vii) a political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body.

Note the magic words "including but not limited to". This means that you don't necessarily have to fall into the examples listed from (i) to (vii) to run foul of the law. As long as you make a film that comments on any political matter (even if not mentioned in the (i)-to(vii) list) , you have made a party political film and you have committed a crime.

Note also the legal definition of film under the Films Act. "Film" isn't limited to the kind of show you typically associate with a film festival or a trip to a Golden Village cinema. Under the Films Act, "film" means:

(a) any cinematograph film;

(b) any video recording, including a video recording that is designed for use wholly or principally as a game;

(c) any other material record or thing on which is recorded or stored for immediate or future retrieval any information that, by the use of any computer or electronic device, is capable of being reproduced or displayed as wholly or partly visual moving pictures,

and includes any part of a film, and any copy or part of a copy of the whole or any part of a film

Conceivably, any itsy-bitsy piece of video recording, for example, even 7 seconds of comedic footage showing Balakrishnan hanging out in a gay bar, could be a party political film. And it would be a criminal offence to make such a video.

Waitaminit - I hear you say. Then how can TCS ever even feature PAP politicians on the 9 o'clock news without technically committing an offence?

Ah. The clever folks in Parliament already thought of that. So they snuck in this clever little provision:

For the avoidance of doubt, any film which is made solely for the purpose of ... reporting of current events is not a party political film.

Well then - I hear you say. Apart from the news, the PAP won't be allowed to use film media to spread any of its own messages. Ha!"

Oh please. They aren't always that bright, but they aren't that dumb. Those little problems are all taken care of. (It's really quite easy to make laws exactly the way you want them to be, if you hold 79 out of 81 seats in Parliament). Section 40 of the Films Act says:

"This Act shall not apply to any film sponsored by the Government."

That is, any film sponsored by the Singapore government is perfectly fine, even if it contains obscene material or explicit political content. And as if that wasn't enough, they also put this in the Act:

"The Minister may, subject to such conditions as he thinks fit, exempt any person or class of persons or any film or class of films from all or any of the provisions of this Act."

So any film can be exempted if the Minister likes the film. In other words, even if a film is bursting with political messages, the Minister can still allow the film to be imported, sold, distributed and exhibited - no problems whatsoever - as long as the Minister likes those political messages.

On the other hand, what do you think are the chances of any PAP Minister liking Martyn See's film? Heh.

posted by Gilbert Koh at 4/13/2005 02:02:00 PM

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Confusing – this gag on critical films

This report was published in TODAY on 13th April 2005.

Clear rules needed if local film industry is to thrive
Siew Kum Hong

The 18th Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) opens tomorrow, promising yet another line-up of cutting-edge films. It comes soon after the recent Singapore Film Week, where a number of made-in-Singapore films were screened in London.
It might, therefore, appear that the film scene in Singapore is alive and well. But then again, maybe not, bearing in mind that a local film-maker had to withdraw his short film from the SIFF after the Media Development Authority (MDA) classified it as a "party political film".
It is an offence under the Films Act to make, distribute or exhibit party political films. Such films include, among others, work that "contains wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter, including ?a current policy of the Government or an issue of public controversy in Singapore".
What is noteworthy is that this is a blanket ban, unlike the normal regime for film censorship, where there is a tiered rating system with the possibility of cuts for objectionable content.
When these provisions were introduced in 1998, opposition and nominated MPs had criticised them as being so broad as to cover all films commenting on local political issues.
Even PAP MP Dr Yaacob Ibrahim felt the provisions could have been "clearer and more precise". NMP Zulkifli Baharudin described them as "sweeping and vague". NMP Claire Chiang pointed out the danger of "giving unnecessarily broad powers to bureaucrats who will want to err on the side of caution and end up banning any social commentary here".
It seems that Ms Chiang may have been proven right.
Last month, Mr Martyn See's short, Singapore Rebel, was classified by the MDA as a party political film, and they advised the SIFF organisers to ask Mr See to withdraw it, failing which "the full extent of the law would apply".
Mr See duly withdrew his film on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.
This is not the first time it has happened. In 2002, four lecturers from Ngee Ann Polytechnic submitted a documentary titled A Vision of Persistence about opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam, to the SIFF. They withdrew it when told it was a party political film.
The stated rationale for these provisions in the Films Act was to prevent American-style political commercials taking root here, which would distort issues and hamper serious debate.
Fair enough. Yet, the actual words used in the statute seem to go beyond that, to the extent that any film that makes a stand on a local political or social issue, regardless of its treatment, would fall foul. But which film-maker worth his salt would make a film about an issue and not set out his stand?
The MDA is only doing its job in enforcing the law as it stands, but it should explain the basis for its classifications. For instance, it should explain why Jack Neo's much feted I Not Stupid, which was one long critique of Singapore's streaming policy, was felt not to contain biased references to or comments on a current policy of the Government, and hence was not classified as a party political film.
Another example would be Mr Royston Tan's Cut. This satire on the MDA's censorship policies was described as an "unbecoming attempt to undermine the standing of a public institution". But it was not classified as a party political film. Instead, it went through the normal film licensing processes, was rated PG and passed without cuts, and allowed to open last year's SIFF.
The MDA's present practice of referring to a film as a party political film leaves a lot to be desired.
More importantly, the wording of the Films Act itself, if not its rationale, needs to be reconsidered.
The Government is, on the one hand, pushing hard to develop a media and film industry in Singapore, and also encouraging youths to speak up and be socially and politically engaged.
On the other hand, the law circumscribes the ability of youths to use a medium that appeals to them, to express their thoughts. This inconsistency is hard to reconcile.
At the end of the day, we all want a thriving local film industry. We want people to be active and engaged, to speak up and be heard. We want clear rules that are equally enforced and seen as being equally enforced.
So, let's all work towards those common goals.
The writer is a lawyer commenting in his personal capacity. Do you have a view on this? Email us at

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Which other country legislate a ban on political films?

Pop Quiz : What are the top three search results on google when you type 'ban political film'?

Answer : Articles on Singapore's ban on political films. The other top search results on 'ban political film' reveal a pretty even contest between Singapore's ban on political films and the controversy surrounding Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11 (which enjoyed a successful commercial run in Singapore cinemas last year).

Another illuminating result is the review of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Silence and The Door which were screened at the SIFF in 2000. It contains an account of how Iran bans political films...

The Silence and The Door, two films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf by Richard Phillips, 27 April 2000

To fully appreciate Iranian films it is necessary to have some understanding of the difficult conditions in which they have been produced. In Iran virtually every aspect of film production and distribution is under government control and has been for most of the industry's history. The first decrees outlawing political films were issued in 1950 and under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who came to power in a CIA-organised military coup in 1953, films critical of the regime or those with explicit references to poverty and the disadvantaged were censored or banned outright.

Following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic regime tightened censorship and imposed strict religious control over film content. Islamic fanatics torched many cinemas, 2,000 films were cut or banned outright and some filmmakers were indicted on charges of “corrupting the public”.

Under current law, films cannot directly criticise the government or make political exposures of social conditions. Men and women cannot touch each other in movies unless married or related and women must observe Islamic dress codes...

What is a 'party political film?'

Saturday, April 09, 2005

'UP CLOSE' on CNA not 'Party Political Films'

UP CLOSE with ChannelNewsAsia

UP CLOSE takes a behind-the-scenes look at five Cabinet Ministers at work and spends time with them at their regular haunts.

The first 4 episodes let viewers get up close with these Ministers and get to know them better. The series also finds out what these Ministers do to experience up close the lives of the Singaporeans in order to get a taste of the real issues of concern, and see for themselves what truly matters to these people.

The concluding episode of UP CLOSE on Thursday 5 May, 8pm - Up Close with the Prime Minister - features Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a special forum where he engages in a frank discussion with a group of Singaporeans on the Singapore that they want.

More about each episode >>

Episode 1 - What's up?
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
TX: 7 April 2005, Thursday 8pm (Sin/HK time)
This episode looks at the stewardship by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of a generation growing up in a country ready-made for the good life.

"What's Up?" paints portraits of a new leadership seeking the pulse of a new citizenry. The Minister's mission is told through the themes in his vision to give youth space, assure the disadvantaged of a place and empower the marginalised to run the race.

Episode 2 - Open Up
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
TX: 14 April 2005, Thursday 8pm (Sin/HK time)
Open Up gives the Minister the platform to demonstrate how he will go about making sure Singapore's new education ideals are achieved, how he addresses the concerns of parents, teachers and students alike on the ground, and in the process, give a sense of the beliefs and personality of the man leading the charge for the Republic's education "revolution".

Episode 3 - Step Up
Dr Ng Eng Hen and Mr Lim Swee Say
TX: 21 April 2005, Thursday 8pm (Sin/HK time)
There is no such thing as an iron rice bowl, so Singaporeans are often told. A lesson all Singaporeans have had to learn to live with, now more so than ever, in this new phase of economic development.

Step Up is a documentary about the changing of mindsets. Workers have to continually upgrade their skills. And, jobs have to be found for workers whose skills are now outdated. This episode traces how government, unions and employers think "out-of the box", re-designing existing jobs so that Singaporeans are proud to enter into them.

Episode 4 - Shape Up
Mr Khaw Boon Wan
TX: 28 April 2005, Thursday 8pm (Sin/HK time)
Singapore's healthcare system is a topic close to every Singaporean's heart. With an ageing population, greater demand for the latest medical technologies and drugs, Singaporeans will have to spend more on healthcare.

Since Minister Khaw Boon Wan took over as chief at the Ministry of Health in August 2003, he has listed as one of his major priorities, the raising of the standard of healthcare while keeping costs affordable.

"Shape Up" will guide the viewer through the new healthcare directives, and provide some insights into the thought processes as well as what motivates and inspires the man with the task at hand.

Episode 5 - "Up close with the Prime Minister"
TX: 5 May 2005, Thursday 8pm (Sin/HK)
In this special forum, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong engages a group of Singaporeans in a discussion on the Singapore that they want.

Opportunities mean different things to different people. In Singapore, where can the hopes come from? What do people think about themselves and Singapore? What do they hope for the future of Singapore?

What is a 'party political film?'

"In the wrong hands film can have a powerful impact" - George Yeo

Singapore's censorhips laws of 1998

International Press Institute report on Singapore 1998

In the first months of 1998, the government took further steps to help the censors in their hard work with media technology, including widening its definition of "publication" and streamlining its various censorship bodies. Singapore’s government never hid its view that media censorship is necessary to protect moral values and maintain internal security, and so also announced that it didn’t want to exempt the media of the IT age. In order to execute this, they announced in February that they were pulling various media censorship and licensing bodies into one unit to make life easier for importers and others, partly "in response to the advances in technology".

It also expanded provisions of its act regulating "obscene" films to include new technologies like compact discs, digital video discs, electronic mail; and made similar changes in its publication act, expanding the definition of "publication" to include CD-ROMs, sound recording, pictures and drawings generated by computer graphics. Finally, a law was implemented banning political parties from making films and videos.

Several members of parliament criticised the move to ban parties from making videos or buying television time. Media regulations are generally widely accepted in Singapore in the belief that they are rooted in the nation’s history of racial and religious divisions. Singapore was formed by competing ethnic groups, playing against each other, and riots ensued. There is, therefore, a deep feeling of justification for regulation to restrict the press to avoid violence.

But the ban on political parties making videos was seen as a political manoeuvre by the leadership in power to weaken the opposition. Information and Art Minister George Yeo, however, dismissed objections, arguing that their "intention is to keep political debates in Singapore serious and not have them become like the selling of soap. In the wrong hands film can have a powerful impact," as he told parliament. Asked about the new regulations expanding censorship to new technologies, Yeo said: "It is not our objective to increase the level of censorship in Singapore. Just maintaining the existing level of censorship is difficult enough."

Parliament bans political party films by Washington Post. Feb 27, 1998.

Bill too sweeping and vague, say MPs by Straits Times Feb 28, 1998

A ban on political film and video sparks debate By AsiaWeek / Singapore

Minister Yeo on OB markers and Internet

"When the law on political videos was enacted, we could not confine it to political parties, because then the obvious way to get around it was to get a friendly non-party organisation to produce the video.

Therefore, we had to extend the law to include those whose purposes are obviously political even though they are not political parties. At the same time, it was obviously not in our interest to disallow all videos which covered political topics.

This then created an ambiguity in the position which is left to the Films Appeal Committee to settle. There was much debate in Parliament about whether this ambiguity could not be better defined. Well, we should if we could."

- Former Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo

What is a 'party political film?'

Sunday, April 03, 2005

We have freedom of speech, says Singapore's top filmmaker

Published in the Straits Times, Saturday April 2, 2005

I Not Stupid opens film week in London

Film-maker Jack Neo quizzed on Singapore censorship after screening

Straits Times
Europe Bureau in London

First, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver attracted attention with his television expose of the state of British school meals. Now, it is Singaporean film-maker Jack Neo - who shook up Singaporeans' attitude to the education system with his movie I Not Stupid - who is catching the eye here, among those interested.

His award-winning film opened the Singapore Season Film Week at the Barbican Cinema here yesterday. It is the first time it is being shown in England.

The film-maker faced a host of questions after the screening. Britons asked how he managed to get his film past the censors, given that there were criticisms of the Government, if he practised self-censorship and how the movie was received.

Neo pointed out that of the seven movies he had made, only one had received one or two cuts.

"People said I'm lucky, but I think it's the right timing. These issues (raised in the film) are being discussed everyday in the newspapers. So they are not new," he said.

Throwing a glance to Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan, Neo noted that he "did not get any bad comments from the Government" about the movie. Most people found it funny, he added.

"And why did they find it funny? It's because it' true," he said to laughter from the audience, including Dr Balaji.

"People say Singapore has no freedom of speech, and in my films, I have said a lot of things, but I'm still here," he said.

The problem with Singaporeans is: "Sometimes the Government doesn't say don't do this and that. But we play safe. Now the Government is trying very hard to tell the people to please say something."

The Government's attitude had changed, he said, and Singaporeans are now encouraged to speak out for themselves.

A member of the audience then asked: "Is caning still practised as shown in the movie?" Neo replied that some schools still have public caning.

He added: "Our country also has the cane and it's very effective. Some gangsters told me that they don't mind going to jail but they are scared of being caned." That quip met with laughter.

Neo says he knows this as he is spending time with inmates as research for his next film, which will feature life in prison.

He said he hoped for commercial release of I Not Stupid in Britain. It is "doing well" in Singapore and Hong Kong, he said, and a TV series of the movie had been sold to satellite television.

The Singapore Film Week at the Barbican is part of the Singapore Season festival, the first concerted effort by government agencies to promote Singapore arts and culture overseas. It also marks the first time that Singapore films are being screened overseas on such a scale - although previously, individual movies have been brought to foreign screens on a smaller scale.

During the Singapore Uncovered programme in London last year, for instance, two of Royston Tan's short films, 15 and Cut, and Eric Khoo's full-length feature 12 Storeys were screened.

12 Storeys is one of the eight movies that will be shown during this film week. The others include Khoo's Mee Pok Man, Forever Fever by Glen Goei, Chicken Rice War by CheeK, Eating Air by Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng, Rice Rhapsody by Kenneth Bi, as well as Homerun, also by Neo.

Dr Balaji launched the Singapore Chinese Orchestra debut performance last night. He will travel to Newcastle for the orchestra's performace at the Sage Gateshead.